Öskjuhlíð: The Pearl of Reykjavík - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Öskjuhlíð: The Pearl of Reykjavík

Öskjuhlíð: The Pearl of Reykjavík

Published August 2, 2017

Photos by
Art Bicnick

To many, Perlan (“the Pearl”) looks like a giant nipple, a feminine counterpart to the phallic symbolism of the Hallgrímskirkja church. It is one of Reykjavik’s best-known landmarks. And yet people weren’t sure exactly what to do with it. The solution, it turned out, was to build the world’s first man-made ice tunnel inside it. Why not?

Öskjuhlíð, the hill one which it is situated, looked very different a century ago. There was no Perlan, no warm water tanks. Also, no forest. Rocks from the hill were used to build the old Reykjavik harbour in 1913; Iceland’s first (and, so far only) railway was set up to transport the materials. There is gold in them thar hills, but not enough to be worth digging for. The barrenness of the place is attested to in pictures of the Graf Zeppelin making Iceland’s first airmail delivery in 1930.

“This features everything you always wanted to know about glaciers but were too hypothermic to ask. You can even walk through one.”

Everything changed in World War II. Warm water tanks were built to house the city’s supply. The British turned Öskjuhlíð into a defence post overlooking their new airport. Successive generations of children (and more recently, LARPers) have played in the ruins of their bunkers. In the 1950s, trees were planted and the hill turned into a recreational area. It later became a popular place to make out, probably the closest we came to all those scenes from American teen movies.

Not only people used it for necking. Rabbits, escaping from or being released by their owners, started breeding like, well, rabbits, and have managed to survive the winters. Their stock is now estimated at around 40, and some complain that they eat the flowers from the Fossvogur cemetery on the eastern slope.

To complete the American teen flick simulation, a bowling alley was opened on the side of hill in 1985. This closed in 2015 and the facilities now house the sport club Mjölnir, where MMA champion Gunnar Nelson works out. Finally, in 1991, megalomaniac Mayor of Reykjavík and soon-to-be Prime Minister of Iceland Davíð Oddsson decreed that a fancy restaurant be built on top of the warm water tanks. And so it came to pass.

The hugely expensive restaurant struggled to make a profit, and was finally closed last year. Meanwhile, the roomy facilities have housed annual markets for books, CDs and DVDs. The Saga Museum, containing life-size models of historical figures, was also housed there for a while. And yet there is a lot of space available that is not being used.

“In 2006, the power was accidentally shut off and over 2000 items were destroyed.”

Meanwhile, the Icelandic Natural History Society was looking for a home—as they have been, in fact, since 1889, when they were founded with the very purpose of establishing a museum. For a while, their collection was housed in a couple of rooms around Hlemmur, but in 2006, the power was accidentally shut off and over 2000 items were destroyed. Two years later they were evicted. Their most valuable piece, the stuffed body of the last Great Auk (which was bought from Denmark with funds donated from all over the country in 1971, was moved to the National Museum for safekeeping. You can now see the bird at the Culture House.

Finally, someone had the great idea to combine these two white elephants, and so a Natural History Museum will be opened in Perlan next year. In the meantime, you can visit the part  that has already been opened there. This features everything you always wanted to know about glaciers but were too hypothermic to ask. You can even walk through one. The museum has at last found a home, and Perlan has been put to good use. This was one nipple that demanded to be freed.

Read more about Perlan.

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